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Twins Turnaround

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Baseball Info Solutions has touched on the Minnesota Twins in a few different pieces of writing so far this season, including a previous Stat of the Week and an article on ESPN Insider (subscription required). However, what the Twins are doing on defense this season demands to be featured. It has been a big surprise to see the Twins march out to an early lead in the AL Central—they are currently one game ahead of the reigning AL champion Indians—but their major turnaround from last season’s MLB-worst 103 losses makes a lot more sense when you see how much they’ve improved in a few specific aspects of the game, in particular on defense. The Twins are one of seven teams that were below average in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) a season ago and are above average so far this season, but no one else is close to their incredible 82-run defensive improvement.

Teams with Negative DRS in 2016 and Positive DRS in 2017
Team 2016 2017 Improvement
Twins -50 32 82
Tigers -50 8 58
Reds -29 19 48
White Sox -3 16 19
Orioles -15 3 18
Mariners -1 10 11
Diamondbacks -1 1 2

The Twins have jumped from the second worst defense in baseball to the second best, and that is thanks to a major talent overhaul. That starts in the outfield where Byron Buxton and Max Kepler have each saved the team six runs. That puts both players in the top 10 in DRS among all outfielders in baseball. For both Buxton and Kepler, excellent range has driven their success. They have combined to save the Twins 19 additional bases compared to average center and right fielders by ranging to make catches.

The Twins' defensive improvements in the infield are no less dramatic. After a rough start to his defensive career as a rookie in 2016, Jorge Polanco has been looking very comfortable at shortstop so far this season, saving the team five runs. In particular, Polanco has shined with his throwing arm, making seven plays above average in the hole between shortstop and third base.

But the biggest positional improvement has come at catcher. Despite his excellent pitch-blocking, Kurt Suzuki really hurt the Twins with poor pitch-framing and stolen base prevention. Last year, he cost the team 12 runs with his defense. In contrast, Jason Castro has saved the team runs with his framing and stolen base prevention and has also been well above average in game calling. In total, he has saved the team seven runs with his excellent defense.

Defense hasn’t been the only key to the Twins’ turnaround, but given the talent involved, it does not look like a fluke. So even if their offense and pitching suffers from some regression, do not expect the bottom to fall out from under the Twins this season.

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